Darlingside the New Darlings of Cambridge Folk Festival, As Old and New Dance Together
One of the great things about the Cambridge Folk Festival is that, confident as they have long been in testing the boundaries of “folk” music, it’s perfectly possible to chart any number of different paths through the weekend’s festivities. You could simply opt, for instance, to see the seasoned folk festival campaigners like Christy Moore, who cannily conjured up a version of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, about local hero Syd Barrett, in the midst of a commandingly-delivered set of old favourites, or Kate Rusby, who, though she may be relatively young, has virtually grown up in front of these people.
So too has Eliza Carthy whose new Wayward Band obviously has an eye on the Bellowhead-shaped hole that’s appeared on the touring circuit. Speaking of that fiendish ensemble, their frontman Jon Boden chose to refloat his solo career with a Thursday night headliner that demonstrated that he’s lost none of his slightly bonkers flamboyance. One-time festival favourites, but “resting’ for several years, Edward 11 have been hard at work honing their “Manchester’s Improving Daily” set. Based around 19th Century Manchester Ballads brought up to date with their sunny Caribbean rhythms, they proved as irresistibly danceable as Saturday evening’s harder-edged Afro Celt Sound System, also returning in triumph after a bit of a break.
The new wave of English folk was well-represented too, and not only in the Club Tent, The Den and the other fringe stages. As exhilirating and hilarious in performance as their songs were cautionary, Stick In The Wheel had attitude to spare on Stage 2 (and pretty much anywhere else you bumped into them!). Nor were the much-fancied likes of Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys or Sam Lee & Friends prepared to rest on their laurels in their high-profile slots.
As ever, American music was also well-represented. Riding high artistically with probably her best album in years, the marvellously human “The Things That We Are Made Of”, Mary Chapin Carpenter closed out a brief UK tour with a set that was as confident and stylish as anyone could have hoped for, while the distinctly earthier The Cash Box Kings put their jetlag to flight, bring a ferocious jolt of genuine Chicago blues to the party. More laidback but just as arresting in her own way, Leyla McCalla undoubtedly won over a whole host of new fans, just as her former Carolina Chocolate Drops colleague Rhiannon Giddens had done in a similar spot last year. Quietly triumphant too, were Woodstock denizens The Mike + Ruthy Band, whose “The Ghost Of Richard Manuel” was one of the most hauntingly memorable songs of the whole weekend, and the improbably-named Sam Outlaw, whose “country music with a Southern California spirit to it” proved highly seductive as the Cambridge skies refused to entirely clear.
But the “I was there” stories that will be told were those of Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton and Darlingside. It was clear something extraordinary was going on from the minute Paxton took to Stage 2 on Friday evening. Accomplished way beyond his years and with a droll delivery that belies the way he so fully inhabits the blues tradition, the news of his triumph spread so fast that when he appeared in the Club Tent only a couple of hours later you could barely get near the place. Some years ago, Old Crow Medicine Show went down so well busking in the field by the merchandise tent that, when the Dixie Hummingbirds were unable to play their Saturday night slot, the Festival’s head honcho Eddie Barcan pressed the OCMS into service playing that slot, and their career skyrocketed as a result.
Something similar happened with Darlingside this year. Like Old Crow, they weren’t entirely unknown, having gone down well at the last Folk Alliance International event in Kansas City. But so popular had their bracing harmonies, free-spirited musical experimentation and jocular stage presence proved with the early evening Stage 2 audience that, when Charles Bradley was unexpectedly taken ill, they took over his Stage 1 slot only an hour later. Their appearance there was such a triumph that not only did the on-site CD stall prove unable to keep up with demand for their ‘Birds Say’ debut album but their Sunday signing and busking sessions turned into major events!
That’s part of the magic of the Cambridge Folk Festival – whether it’s old or new, the familiar served up with love or the previously-undiscovered delivered with passion, when that audience finds music that moves them they truly take it to their hearts and celebrate it.